The Great American Story

Back when I was in college, I took my parents to the Chanhassen Dinner Theater to see the musical “Carousel.” (I say I “took” them; I’m sure it was on their dime.) We had a table just below and up against the stage. There is a lot of dancing and physicality in Carousel; and the actors were flying around so close, we could reach up and touch them.

One of the numbers involved a fight scene where an actor was pushed to the stage right above our table. His long hair was soaked with sweat by then, and as he fell to the floor violently, his head whipped back and splattered us with sweat. I thought, “Wow, this is live theater!”

I love theater. There is something unmatched about the immediacy and vitality of performers live in the moment, in your presence. There is energy that can’t be felt watching a screen. I’ve always thought a bad day at the theater is better than a good day in front of a television.

Around here there are a number of opportunities to see good productions at our schools, community theaters, and up at MLC. In Sleepy Eye, we have Sandy Brinkman and the talented folks at Public School. Sleepy Eye Community Theater just celebrated their 25th season. Over at St. Mary’s, there is a tradition of musicals. The most recent vintage have been under the direction of Julie Neubauer.

This is the 20th year of Julie’s musicals, something to look forward to every March. Julie runs a tight ship; no high school football coach demands more discipline than she. The kids know what they are signing onto. Rehearsal at six means you are there ten minutes to six. The hard work begins the day after Christmas. At that point, the participants are a blank slate. Three months later, they are part of something that is amazing, that can only happen through great effort, and that is bigger than any one of them.

Over the years, Julie has created a team of community members. Jeff Koewler designs the impressive sets. Ron Berdan and Mark Sabatino come up with special effects. Many others help. Dads and sons build the sets. Moms and daughters paint and do costumes.

One of Julie’s teams merits special mention. Gary Sassenberg has choreographed a number of St. Mary’s musicals. Gary has a background in professional theater and it shows. He can take a bunch of small town kids and have them performing at a level that is way above their experience. It is truly a gift to the students and to the audience.

For daughter Abby, up at the University now, the musical was her favorite part of high school. Each November when the musical was announced, we would order the CD. Then we watched her sing and dance her way around our kitchen till we got to see it on stage. Son Ezra isn’t quite so effusive, but he will be a Munchkin and Oznian this weekend.

Yep, it’s The Wizard of Oz. I read a review of the new Oz movie where the writer suggests that The Wizard of Oz is the great American story. “Tom Sawyer” would be in the running. “Moby-Dick”? “Grapes of Wrath”? You could argue that over beer quite a while. But if you want the story that most of us know best, The Wizard wins.

Long before DVDs, The Wizard of Oz was on television on Sunday evenings once a year. For a little kid growing up north of Kansas, it was a big event, so big we could eat supper in the Living Room. Dorothy’s homeplace didn’t look much different than ours. And like every kid on every farm, you wondered what was over that rainbow across the field, over the Mertz place in my case.

I’m not sure about children today who are exposed to so much. But back then, the sky never looked the same once you imagined it filled with a tornado or worse, flying monkeys. That was the stuff of nightmares.

Frank Baum, the creator of the fantastical world of Oz moved around some, failing at several careers. He spent time in South Dakota, not far from here. It was there during tough, drought years, that Baum began to envision Dorothy’s hardscrabble farm life and a world beyond.

Attempts have been made to understand symbolism in The Wizard of Oz. It seems to fit into political debates of the 19th century: the Scarecrow stood for agriculture, the Tin Man represented industrial workers, etc.

It may have been written as political allegory, but it connects on other levels. Dorothy’s ragamuffin friends can stand well for any of us. Which of us hasn’t wished for the intelligence/wisdom to solve a vexing problem? We all have moments we wish our heart were bigger to love deeper. And courage to do the right thing? Every day. It’s good to learn that it was right there inside Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Lion all the time. Maybe it’s in each of us.

The desire to go home again? Maybe that’s the grownup in all of us who feels the tug of childhood having gone off to the big Emerald City of adulthood. Or we can see it in a spiritual sense. The shiny world of Oz with all its seductions and temptations is this life. Meanwhile, part of us yearns to go to our heavenly home.

In the end Dorothy reminds us that, “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with!”

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